Alps—Biceps Training with a Pinch of Philosophy, Arnold’s way

07-07-2015 | 
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In the 1970s, everybody in the US knew that really impressive peaks were not to be found at Yosemite National Park, but at Gold's Gym in Venice, California. Because that was the place where Arnold carved each of his muscle fibers perfect that time. Nowadays freaks come, freaks go. Today’s competitors are much bigger and sharper than ever. Still, Arnold is living on in our minds as a classic example of a perfect physique that no one could ever compare to. The Scott bench was named after Larry Scott. But even his legendary arms could not measure up to Arnold’s 60-cm guns. Maybe he is to blame for this wrong tendency of arm-centered workout plans way too many guys follow. After all, who would say no to guns like those of Arnold the Great?

From tiny seeds grow mighty oaks

It’s significant (and encouraging) to note that Schwarzenegger wasn’t born with massive guns. Among many other things, genetics is a key factor. But without hard work, it won’t get you far. In fact, when he first started training seriously, the 15-year-old future Austrian Oak was a mere sapling: he weighed only 70 kilos and his arms measured 20 centimeters. As he recalls:

“When I was 10 years old, I was already flexing my arms every day. By the time I started bodybuilding at age 15, biceps were the most noticeable muscle group on my body. By flexing my biceps so much, I’d learned to control them more completely. This mind-link ability then translated into my bodybuilding when I began training with weights. When I did a curl, it felt special, because I could instantly sense blood rushing into the muscle.”

Austrian Alps – Biceps Training with a Pinch of Philosophy, Arnold’s way

This is the so-called mind-muscle connection we keep preaching about. And many people fail to develop it even after years of training. But if you finally succeed, this ability will enable you to work each of your muscles with an intensity that cannot be reached in any other way. Just like Arnold did: he could directly control his muscles with his mind and pump them full of blood. Remember the scene in the film Pumping Iron, when he is explaining the sense of pump in his own peculiar way? His biceps were not a mere result of genetics and bodybuilding lifestyle, but kind of a projection of his mind. Just like his physique on the whole.

The Oak is a perfect example of what the biceps (or any other muscle) need to get them grow for real.

“See the biceps. Be the biceps.”

Arnold was already a good politician when he was still a bodybuilder. He seemingly treated his opponents as friends, but in fact, he gave them the wrong advice. However, he didn’t reserve such tactics only for Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu or Sergio Oliva. In fact, the person to whom he applied his most intense psychological stratagems was himself.

Arnold’s biceps are actually mountains.

“I was constantly playing tricks on my mind. This is why I began to think of my biceps as mountains, instead of flesh and blood. Thinking of my biceps as mountains made my arms grow faster and bigger than if I’d seen them only as muscles. When you think of biceps as merely muscles, you subconsciously have a limit in your mind. When you limit yourself to that measurement, it is very hard to get to that level and, needless to say, impossible to get past it. But when you think about mountains, there is no limit to biceps growth, and therefore you have a chance of going beyond normal mental barriers.

That being said, Schwarzenegger makes the point that it is important to temper our zeal with a healthy dose of pragmatism:

“A beginner must learn to be satisfied with small gains —overjoyed, in fact.” And this goes for all levels of bodybuilding. “But a beginner must not be told that giant gains come easily, or that he can get super big overnight as long as he trains like a champion. It’s not like that. His progress should be a history of small successes, and he should look forward to each gain with great anticipation.” And that’s how you can gradually progress. “Whether it’s muscle or money, you have to make it with your mind. I once asked a fellow whom I had seen train for four years whether he had ever thought of winning the Mr. Universe.” He had been training hard for 4 years then. “His answer was ‘Nah, I could never do that.’ You know what? He was right.” With that attitude, he could have NEVER won Mr. Universe.

Arnie during a biceps workout

See how it was going on in Arnie’s mind? He reached a level of consciousness and control over his body and mind that only a few could measure up to. He never broke anyone’s face. He never abused his physical strength to achieve great results in any aspect of his life. All he used was his mind. And, as you can see, it worked.

A shocking development

So, like he did in the gym, Arnold applied the above principles with great success with every aspect of his life. He analyzed exactly what steps would be required for him to build the greatest biceps ever. Although his earliest biceps workouts consisted primarily of barbell and dumbbell curls, as he became exposed to American bodybuilding magazines, he picked up new exercises, such as the preacher curl. By the age of 19, Schwarzenegger had already devised a method of training biceps unlike any other—one to which his still-developing muscles couldn’t help but respond.

“A typical training program would include barbell curls, dumbbell curls (seated or standing), preacher bench curls and concentration curls. Keep in mind, though, that the way I trained changed a lot of times, because I’d always try to shock the muscles.I recall days when my training partners and I would do 20 extremely heavy sets of biceps work, with only four or five reps each set. Another day—maybe only two days later—we would do 10 more sets, 15 reps each, using a lighter weight. This shocking method was extremely important to my training. Your muscles tend to become complacent and resist growth if you are constantly doing the same workout for them. But if you try all different types of training methods, you keep the muscles off balance. They sort of say to themselves, ‘Wow, there’s a new thing here. I’ll never get used to this. I can never build up a resistance to the training, so I guess I’ll have to grow!’”

And his arms did just that. You cannot see goddamn guns like these every day.

They grew to 17 inches (43 cm) when he was 17, 18 inches (45 cm) at 18 and past 19 inches (48 cm) by the time he was 19. The lucky ones who have seen Arnold train in real life were convinced that he was a brainless lunatic, as they didn’t see the concept behind. But of course they were curious about his secret. It was all about variety: he never followed the same workout plan until he became too familiar with it. He kept shocking his biceps so they had absolutely no chance to grow familiar with one particular type of load.


In the beginning, Arnold primarily used these methods to pack on as much beef as possible. But when he entered the world of the pros, it became clear to him that he needed more than mere mass for success. He had to aim at a sharper and perfectly tuned physique in order to beat his new opponents. To this end, he chose to break up his biceps training into two distinct routines: offseason and pre-contest. By the way, this concept is considered outdated today. As we know now, training is of secondary importance in this respect: today, competitors may follow the same routine all along, until the day of the contest; contest shape and all the tiny details depend more on the diet and other pre-contest tricks. Still, good old Arnie is worth listening to, so read on: as I already mentioned, in the offseason routine, his only concern was packing on quality mass, while in the pre-contest phase he was doing exercises that were suitable for carving out even the tiniest details on his biceps. (Or, at least, he thought so. But please let me highlight again: it does not primarily depend on training).

Arnold was keen on carving out even the tiniest details on his biceps.

This method is not recommended for mere mortals, not even for more experienced bodybuilders. But Arnie had both the genetics and the mental capacity to literally train himself suitable for this extreme load. But for those of us who just work out as a hobby, it does not make sense to follow a program like this. Arnold himself gave different advice to his clients or anyone else. For beginners, he would advise doing five sets of barbell curls and five sets of dumbbell curls—10 total sets of 8 to 12 repetitions

“Concentrate on a strict movement, and try to gain some strength. Experiment with different curling arcs until you find the one that puts maximum resistance on your biceps.”

This is a wise thought. Schwarzenegger says 12 sets total for biceps should serve the intermediate bodybuilder nicely:

“I’d look at your biceps development and determine where you have weak points. Then I’d give you a tailored program to bring these weaker areas of your biceps up to par. If you lack biceps fullness, do heavy dumbbell curls. If you lack peak, do everything with dumbbells. Do plenty of concentration curls and dumbbell curls lying back on a high bench, like Reg Park used to do them.”

(Please let me point out again: this will probably not make your biceps more peaked; the shape and “peak” of your biceps is mostly determined by genetics and muscle mass, not by the exercises you do. But, if you have large biceps, you will probably bring out the best in them. It’s as simple as that. Still, if your Mom and Dad gave you football-shaped biceps, you can do as many concentration curls as you want; you’re never gonna have peaks like Arnold’s.)

Finally, Schwarzenegger reserves his most surprising bit of advice for advanced trainers. “The biggest post-intermediate-level mistake is to burn the biceps out. Biceps are basically a small muscle group, and you can’t do too much for them without overtraining,” instructs the Terminator of training. So, what constitutes overtraining?

“I’d say the upper limit for biceps would be 15 sets in a hard workout, but I see all kinds of bodybuilders doing 25 to 30 sets on a regular basis.”

And so did he. But that was in his time. Not that there would be anything wrong with hitting the biceps with 25 to 30 sets per workout—if your name happened to be Schwarzenegger.

The program, as Arnold did it!

When bulking up, Schwarzenegger would follow a six-day split, hitting arms twice per week: 45 minutes for triceps, 45 minutes for biceps and 30 minutes for forearms, in that order. Arnold believed this routine can be accomplished twice a week with three to four days of rest between arm workouts—“Don’t try this at home!” Breaking down curls into two main categories—mass building and isolation—Schwarzenegger chose two exercises from each group to ensure that he would build not just mass, but quality mass.

Let’s see what it looked like in practice:

  • “Cheating” barbell curl: 5-8 x 8-12
  • Incline dumbbell curl: 5-8 x 8-12
  • One-arm concentration curl: 5 x 10
  • Standing alternate dumbbell curl: 5 x 10

The essence of “cheating” barbell curl is that using a shoulder-wide grip, you can move heavier weights by not aspiring to strict form or using the full range of motion, while your biceps will not rest at any point of the motion range. This means, you will not let them rest at the lowest or the top position either. And you may give some additional momentum by swinging your trunk. It’s all about bombing your biceps with heavy weights and concentrate on maximum contraction all along each series, while there is no full extension, not even at the lowest position.

Arnold while doing “cheating” barbell curls

He did incline dumbbell curls lying on a 45-degree incline bench. One-arm concentration curls were done in a standing bent-over position using the free arm for support against a bench (as you can see in Pumping Iron). But three months before a contest, he would change his arm routine completely. He started his pre-contest routine about 3 months before contest. Let’s see:

  • Superset #1: incline dumbbell curl + triceps pushdown 4 x 8-10
  • Superset #2: standing alternate dumbbell curl + one-arm overhead tricep extension: 4 x 8-10
  • Superset #3: preacher curl + lying French press: 4 x 8-10
  • Superset #4: one-arm concentration curl + reverse triceps pushup: 4 x 8-10
  • Superset #5: reverse preacher curl + barbell wrist curl: 5 x 10-12

This will kill you! Most mere mortals might find it overtaxing if not damn near impossible to do such a volume of training twice a week without overtraining. And Arnold recognized that he would only be able to grow 60-cm guns if he killed his triceps, too, since about two-thirds of the muscle mass of the upper arms is made up by the triceps. To that end, he smartly paired triceps with biceps in supersets in his pre-contest routine, while in the offseason plan he trained them separately, but on the same day.

Standing alternate dumbbell curl

We can virtually take it for granted that this program would never work for you or for me. Oldschool bodybuilders would do workouts of such a high volume even for one small muscle. And if you take a closer look, you can see that their physique was different from today’s trend: most people find their shape more esthetic, even though they didn’t have such a huge mass as today’s bodybuilders have. But like today’s pros, these guys were born with extraordinary genetics. The best evidence for that lies on the “dark side”: back then, there weren’t so many chemical substances available as there are today. Still they were able to do these killer workouts and recuperate properly. And Arnold (and many other legendary bodybuilders of his time) are perfect examples for the fact that such a high volume of training (together with genetics of course) may be suitable for building a hard and massive, yet esthetic physique.

One thing is for sure: either you are born for it or not. Many have tried to monkey Arnold’s ways that time; many have seen what he was doing in the gym. Still there was no one at his time who could beat him in any respect. What was his secret? No, it was not just abut his workout routine or diet. The real secret lied in his head, and no one could ever see it.


Source: Muscle & Fitness (US), June 2014 issue.

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